Blog Transportation

Is the Enhanced Station Initiative a Good Idea?

July 20, 2017

On June 29, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) service area citing continuing failures of MTA infrastructure and their “vast and deleterious” impact on the region. As part of this declaration, the newly-named Chairman, Joseph Lhota, will conduct an assessment of the MTA’s capital needs within 60 days. This comes a little more than a month after the MTA Board approved a comprehensive amendment to the current capital plan, which added $2.8 billion to the size of the 2015-2019 program.

One area that received more attention—and funding—in the amended capital plan is subway stations. Every day millions of passengers enter and exit the MTA’s 472 subway stations. The heavy use of the mostly aged stations in this extensive system makes restoring and keeping the stations in a state of good repair (SGR) a Sisyphean task. In response to this challenge, the MTA launched a revised strategy for station improvement, christened the Enhanced Station Initiative (ESI).

The ESI is the MTA’s third shift in strategy for addressing station repair needs.1 When the capital planning and investment program began in 1982, the agency identified a need for $20 billion to bring the entire system, including all of the stations, to good repair in 10 years. The early assumption was that stations would require primarily surface repairs, but it became evident that more complex and expensive structural work was necessary. In 1992 a revised strategy was adopted with the goal of rehabilitating stations to satisfactory condition by 2009. However the pace of work fell behind the target and in 1995 rehabilitating all stations was delayed from 2009 to 2019, to 2022 in 2000, to 2024 in 2005, and delayed indefinitely in 2010. In response to the seemingly unaffordable and impossible task of fully rehabilitating all stations, the MTA in 2010 shifted to a component-oriented strategy for repairs. Instead of fully rehabilitating stations, work would focus only on specific components—such as platform edges, ventilators, or stairs—most in need of improvement. This strategy guided selection of projects in the MTA’s 2010-2014 capital plan and the initially adopted 2015-2019 plan.

Now, the latest revision to the station-repair strategy, the ESI, will provide the previous component repairs, as well as additional enhancements including LED lighting, new signage, countdown clocks, and better cellular and Wi-Fi service to 32 stations.2  These enhancements will certainly be welcomed by the users of those stations, but allocating almost $1 billion in additional capital funds for enhancements precludes their use for component projects at other stations and other needed investments in subway performance.  As part of the MTA’s 60-day review, the question of whether the enhancement of 32 stations is worth the trade-off against other capital needs should be reexamined.

Station enhancements will certainly be welcomed by the users of those stations, but allocating almost $1 billion in additional capital funds for enhancements precludes their use for other needed investments.

The Evolution of Station Work in the 2015-2019 Capital Program

At a January 2016 event at the New York Transit Museum, the Governor and then-MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast announced efforts to do more than “just repair and maintain” the subway system. The ESI was a part of “modernizing the MTA like never before” by revamping design guidelines to improve the look and feel of 30 stations. (The number of ESI stations would grow to 32.)3 The MTA board and State’s Capital Plan Review Board (CPRB) went on to approve the 2015-2019 capital program in April and May of 2016, respectively, without further details about the ESI: A $64 million project reserve was included in the plan and designated for the ESI.4 In July 2016 the Governor announced that the 32 ESI stations would be divided into eight “packages” that would be managed through the design-build process and that these projects would address repairs to or replacements of structural components not in SGR, as well as architectural and painting elements with a new design theme.5 The MTA promises that all 32 stations will be completed by 2020.

On May 24, 2017 the MTA board approved an amendment to the 2015-2019 capital plan. This amendment added more than $1.1 billion to the existing plan for subway stations projects, bringing the total to $4 billion.6 Of this, approximately $340 million supported increases in commitments to making stations accessible for the disabled, improving escalators and elevators, new fare collection equipment, and other projects not related to the rehabilitation of stations. About $857 million was added to the originally-allocated $64 million for the ESI, offset by reductions of $47 million and $45 million to station renewals and station component projects, respectively. Of the $921 million for the ESI in the 2015-2019 capital program, $406 million is for ESI projects at 11 stations in Packages 1, 2, and 3; the remaining $514 million is allocated to support ESI projects in packages 4-8 at 21 other stations.

Better Stations Brought to Riders Faster

Comprehensive overhauls will lead to more appealing stations than ongoing component projects. Renderings of the ESI stations include easier-to-clean finishes, sleeker glass barriers between turnstiles, and enhanced lighting on platforms, mezzanines, and corridors. Stations will also offer more visible signage and service announcements, improved wayfinding, neighborhood maps, and countdown clocks.7

Table of New York City Transit stations projects

Moreover, use of design-build procurement for packages of stations may enable the agency to accelerate project completion.8 Historically single station overhauls have required more time than ESI projects are expected to take and have been more likely to require more time than initially planned. The median station rehabilitation project from the 2005-2009 capital plan took more than three years; the median rehabilitation in the 2010-2014 plan took more than four years. (See Table 1.) The median time to complete lower-impact station renewal projects is currently 29 months.9 But the shorter rehab times will cause more disruption than less comprehensive renovations. In some cases ESI projects will require full closures of stations.  Package 1 requires the closure of three stations on the R line for six months. Package 2—four N & W train stations in Astoria—allows for the closure of one platform at two stations at a time on an alternating schedule for a period up to 21 months. Package 3—four stations on the 8th Avenue Line on Manhattan’s west side—allows for the simultaneous closure of stations.10 Future ESI packages will involve the closure of adjacent or proximate stations, concentrating this reduced subway accessibility in a particular neighborhood.11 Additionally, full-time work at stations may require General Orders to redirect or reduce rail service during the day, impacting riders who enter the system at other stations along the lines.

More Expensive Work to Serve a Small Number of Riders

Despite the benefits of design-build procurement, the comprehensive nature of the ESI and the station enhancements included increase the cost of these projects over the $22 million average cost per station for renewal projects not part of the ESI. The cost per station ranges from $29 million for the 72nd Street station on the 8th Avenue Line in Package 3 to $43 million for the 30th Avenue station on the Astoria Line in Package 2, with an average cost of $37 million per station. (See Figure 1.)

A particularly relevant comparison is the cost per station for the four stations in Package 2 as part of the ESI versus their previously budgeted cost as non-ESI projects—$40 million versus $16 million. This difference is the incremental cost of equipping these stations with ESI enhancements and speeding their completion, but it is understated because it does not include some systemwide costs such as those for fare control area improvements, or Bluetooth countdown clocks that are included in the list of ESI-related enhancements.

Moreover, the cost of the ESI initiative could increase as contracts for Packages 4 through 8 are awarded. The 2015-2019 capital plan includes $514 million for the remaining 21 stations, an average cost per station of approximately $24 million. While a lower per station cost may be possible in some of the remaining stations, an average cost of yet-to-be awarded packages that is a third less than the average cost of stations in already-awarded Packages 1, 2, and 3 is unlikely.

The ESI primarily supplements what was already a fairly targeted stations program. Of the 32 ESI stations, all but one—Nostrand Avenue on the Fulton Street Line—had previously approved component projects or station renewals planned as part of the 2015-2019 capital plan. However, despite the aim of bringing comprehensive re-imagination of the subway system’s most dilapidated stations, not all ESI stations are among the system’s neediest according to the latest station condition survey. Approximately half of all ESI stations rank outside the top 100 neediest stations by number and share of structural components not in SGR.12 (See Map.)

Nor are the chosen stations the most heavily used. With the exception of two stations in Package 4—Penn Station on the Broadway-7th Avenue Line and Penn Station on the 8th Avenue Line, ranked fifth and seventh, respectively—none were in the top 25 for average weekday ridership; only six ESI stations are ranked in the top 100 for weekday ridership. Even including two Penn Station subway stops, the ESI stations account for 8 percent of annual weekday entries to the system.13


Faced with a challenging task, the MTA has decided to alter its approach to stations work by overhauling some stations through the ESI instead of devoting additional capital funds to more component projects. Ideally the MTA could pursue both an expanded component approach and the ESI, but the constrained size of the capital plan forces the MTA to make difficult choices about  where to allocate funds.

As the agency faces falling subway performance, investments in the signal system and other SGR work are necessary to ensure the system can continue to operate safely and reliably. Will future riders be better off and more satisfied waiting out the delays at enhanced stations? The MTA must consider this question as it reviews its capital program to address the current state of emergency.


  1. For more information on previous strategies, see: Jamison Dague, Sisyphus and Subway Stations (Citizens Budget Commission, August 2015),  
  2. The 32 stations comprised in this analysis include both the 34th Street-Penn Station stop on the Broadway-7th Avenue Line and 34th Street-Penn Station stop on the 8th Avenue Line, but does not include Richmond Valley station of the Staten Island Railway.
  3. New York State Office of the Governor, “8th Proposal of Governor Cuomo’s 2016 Agenda: Bring the MTA into the 21st Century to Dramatically Improve the Travel Experience for Millions of New Yorkers and Visitors,” (press release, January 8, 2016),  
  4. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, MTA Capital Program 2015-2019: Renew, Enhance, Expand (as approved by the CPRB, May 2016),
  5. New York State Office of the Governor, “Governor Cuomo Unveils Design of Reimagined MTA Subway Cars and Details Ambitious Plan to Enhance Subway Stations” (press release, July 18, 2016),  
  6. This includes specified amounts of $965 million for Americans with Disabilities Act improvements at 21 stations; $70 million for escalators and/or elevators at 5 stations; $50 million for component work at 19 stations; $357 million for 16 Station Renewals; and $285 million in other improvements at 8 stations. The capital plan amendment does not specify how many stations will be aided by the remaining funds. See: Metropolitan Transportation Authority, MTA Capital Program 2015-2019: Renew, Enhance, Expand (as proposed to the MTA Board, May 2017),
  7. New York State Office of the Governor, “Governor Cuomo Unveils Design of Reimagined MTA Subway Cars and Details Ambitious Plan to Enhance Subway Stations” (press release, July 18, 2016),  
  8. Design-build is best suited for new projects or projects where an entire segment is taken out of service to allow for larger, more complicated capital investments. Moreover, previous experience with subway stations has led to more extensive projects once walls are opened and structures are exposed, escalating costs in a design-build contract that might have already been discovered and disclosed as part of a traditional design-bid-build process. Still, the tool may allow the agency to accelerate the procurement process by combining the design and construction phases of stations projects.
  9. The three project types are different: rehabilitations include complete structural rebuilds, renewals focus on bringing all structural, architectural, and painting components to SGR, and ESI projects will add some enhancements to the process of a station renewal. Moreover, certain stations or groups of stations may be more complex than others.
  10. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit, “Enhanced Station Initiative: CCM Pre-Proposal Conference,” (October 25, 2016),  
  11. It appears the MTA has made efforts to accommodate this: the other two Astoria Line stations, Astoria Ditmars Boulevard and Astoria Boulevard, are both in need of significant overhaul like their cousins. However, shuttering these stations as well could lengthen the period of disruption for all of Astoria. Likewise adjacent stops from Package 1 stations 4th Avenue-9th Street, 45th Street, 59th Street, and 77th Street all show similar shares of structural and total components not in SGR.
  12. Though the condition of subway stations has not been updated since the 2012 Station Condition Survey, assuming that some stations have not degraded significantly faster than others, the relative ranking of these stations by total components not in SGR and share of components not in SGR remains useful in determining the “neediest” stations. This data is adjusted to reflect the completion of all capital projects included in the 2010-2014 capital plan. See: Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “Station Conditions Survey” (August 2015).
  13. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “Introduction to Subway Ridership – Ridership by Subway Station” (accessed July 1, 2017),